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In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Visions for the Next School Year

By Larry Ferlazzo — June 09, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a multipart series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

Today’s question is:

What will our schools like look in the fall (or What should they look like)?

Dr. PJ Caposey, a district superintendent, shared his thoughts in Part One.

In Part Two, Lorie Barber, Cathleen Beachboard, Manuel Rustin, and Jeffrey Garrett offered their responses (Manuel and Jeffrey’s comments were presented via video from their must-watch video series All Of The Above).

In Part Three, Sarah Said and Holly Spinelli described how they saw the future.

Today, Wendi Pillars, Mary K. Tedrow, Dr. Elvis Epps, and Mike Anderson contribute their commentaries.

You might also be interested in All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis as well as The Best Posts Predicting What Schools Will Look Like In The Fall.

Who will our students be?

Wendi Pillars, NBCT, a 24-year teaching veteran has taught all ages, from kinder to adult, overseas and stateside, in myriad content areas. She believes deeply in the power of visuals to unlock others’ creativity and curiosity and to make better decisions. She is the author of Visual Notetaking for Educators, as well as a 2nd edition of Visual Notetaking to be released this fall. Find her on Twitter @wendi322:

Rather than ask what schools should look like, what if we asked who our students will be?

Those of you who know me, know my penchant for visualizing. So let’s create an actual visual to serve as an anchor for our decisionmaking. I invite you to ask different groups to engage in this activity for even more data: staff PLCs, school administrators, district personnel, business leaders, even parents and students.

Imagine, then actually sketch out, the “ideal student.” What do they need to be successful, and crucially, what now constitutes success in 2020? Next, list and draw which steps, resources, mindsets, training, and changes need to be in place in order for this to happen.

Try this visual thinking prompt among groups of your colleagues or within your PLCs and you can literally “see” the different ideas, cultural mores, ideologies, and visions for student success. As a teacher, let alone an administrator or policymaker, the top goal for me is to have a coherent and consistent aim for my work. An agreed-upon vision of success is a critical priority upon which all else rests. Making it visible, even with basic sketches and lists, puts all the cards on the table for everyone to see, prioritize, categorize. This becomes a tangible basis for making decisions and next steps, ensuring all voices are heard while minimizing wasted meeting time.

What comprises a “successful student”? What kinds of supports, direct and indirect, visible and invisible, do they need to succeed in today’s intensely evolving world? Whose definition of success matters most?

Now, picture your most challenging student to reach, the one “furthest away” from your definition of successful. What other definitions of success are you missing, ignoring, or downplaying? What do you need to understand better about that student? What will it take to pivot their school and learning experiences? What are their most pressing needs, and how will we know? What role does student input play into your idea of success, and how much do you believe it should?

As you try this exercise with your staff or PLC, note others’ interpretations with an open mind. Replace judgment with curiosity and ask them to tell you more about their thoughts. Where do ideas intersect? Diverge? Plateau?

The business world creates avatars to flesh out their ideal customers; we would do well to do the same with our students. Together, immersing ourselves in what others are seeing, hearing, feeling and experiencing in this time of both informational and emotional overwhelm, we can more deeply understand the challenges our students are facing. Through their perspectives, we learn what they need, want, and value, how they are incentivized, and wherein lie the opportunities. For each of us.

This is the perfect time for the educational sector to imagine a better way forward, with intentional steps toward a vision that honors the twin pillars of humility immersed in reality and daring to believe in what might actually be possible. Imagine. Then sketch it out and make it real, with students truly at the center.

“Outside-the-box thinking”

Mary K. Tedrow, an award-winning high school English teacher, now serves as the director of the Shenandoah Valley Writing Project and teaches at Shenandoah and Johns Hopkins Universities. Her book, Write, Think, Learn: Tapping the Power of Daily Student Writing Across the Content Area is available through Routledge:

The current pandemic calls for outside-the-box thinking to engage students in learning and growing throughout the 2020-22 academic years. Major restructuring of the school year and flexible learning spaces are required.

First, shift to year-round instruction, but delay the traditional start to the school year to mid-September 2020.

In the time afforded between now and then, invest in massive professional development so secondary teachers can develop effective cross-curricular, project-based, online, and hybrid teaching beginning with teachers in grades 7 and up. Far-reaching but limited numbers of projects can engage students in literacy, math, science, and problem-solving and subsequently reduce what school looks like in the home setting, reducing online time to uploading of products, research. Wherever possible, incorporate learning into routine household activities. Public and school libraries should have scheduled openings timed to secondary cohort groupings.

Before school starts up in the fall, primary and elementary teachers should receive or revisit professional development in effective literacy instruction (see recent NAEP reading scores and the soon-to-be released writing scores for this justification).

Districts can use the delayed opening to reconfigure student-attendance zones and teacher assignments and make plans to assist and support students who cannot manage online instruction either behaviorally or due to inequities. In the lower grades, teachers will loop with their spring 2020 students to maintain established relationships and speed ahead on instruction.

When schools reopen, prioritize face-to-face learning for the youngest, ages 4 - 11. Students learning to read need teacher expertise and time. Additionally, parents who must work from home (including secondary teachers) will need relief from the intensive home schooling and parenting duties necessary for this age group.

Begin school with rolling opening dates and start/end times with temperature, symptom checking, masks, and hygiene a requirement. Start by orienting older students to the expectations of online instruction in small, consistent cohorts who share a team of core instructors. Include lessons in home and internet safety, first aid, and rudimentary cooking and housekeeping.

Once older students are properly acclimated to the online setting and expectations, return them to their homes. Teachers can monitor “attendance” in their cohorts via online engagement. Students who are not attending will be pulled into traditional spaces for teacher-directed learning as planned for by the district. A beefed-up truancy/counseling team can handle cases referred by teachers.

Then, open every school building, elementary and secondary, to face-to-face learning for the younger students. The additional school buildings will afford the space needed to keep students in smaller student cohorts that will not intermingle—single meal lunches served in the classroom, no large assemblies, staggered gym/recess/start-end times, specials instruction brought into the room. Though young students will have difficulty social distancing within the groups, small groups will contain virus contamination. If the virus spreads, only affected groups need quarantine. These cohorts happened organically in day cares, which remained open through the first shutdown. Limit busing to the 4- to -11-year-olds going to their assigned building in staggered start/end times.

With a year-round schedule, younger students will have two-week breaks every six or nine weeks. During this time period, older students return to a deeply cleaned school building vacated by the younger students for further updates and face-to-face instruction. Parents will not be expected to instruct the young students now at home. A traditional winter, summer, and spring holiday for all can be built into a year-round calendar.

Testing should be limited to diagnostic tests that are quickly scored and used for instruction. No interruptions to instruction should occur to prepare for high-stakes tests. All funding previously earmarked for high-stakes tests will be rerouted to boost student online access, busing, salaries, supplies, and cleaning.

Social-emotional learning

Dr. Elvis Epps is the principal of Lake Worth Community High School in the school district of Palm Beach, West Palm Beach, Fla.:

State and school leaders across the nation are facing the challenge of reopening schools in the fall. Some P-12 school districts and universities have already informed their community and stakeholders that they will reopen in the fall. Many of them have not selected a start date as of June 1.

Opening schools across the nation will pose many problems if school and district leaders are not careful. The big question to consider is how many students can be on a school campus all while adhering to the Center for Disease Control guidelines for social distancing and sanitizing areas where students will interact. I am the principal of a large high school where school enrollment exceeds 2,500 students. Allowing students to return without having a viable plan would create more problems than school districts can handle. There are many safety and operational factors to consider; however, some of the most urgent barriers or constraints are

  1. The social and emotional levels of the faculty, staff, and students. There has been a nationwide increase in the number of students and educators seeking support for depression, trauma, and emotional stress. Closing schools in March came quickly and with little preparations. That change caused many teachers to shift from what they knew to incorporate distance learning strategies they had never been trained in. The transition caused many teachers to shut down out of frustration and the feeling of not being prepared to teach online.

  2. School districts across the nation are facing a shortfall of funds to operate schools as normal. Several school districts are forced to layoff teachers and noninstructional personnel. Local communities are facing higher numbers of unemployment and business closures. As for the communities that are not facing major budget cuts, many of those residents and teachers are seriously considering whether to return to school or continue to teach online.

  3. Will schools receive the necessary cleaning and sanitizing needed to reduce or eliminate the COVID-19 virus from spreading among students and teachers when they return to school? State leaders are weighing the odds of calculating how to make this happen all while attempting to flatten the curve. School districts will also have to develop plans for transporting students to and from school. Currently, there is a shortage of bus drivers in many school districts throughout South Florida.If we plan to stagger lunchtime for more than 2,500 students, this will mean that lunch will begin at 9 a.m. and end at 2 p.m. This would cause a logistical and academic challenge for my school.

I believe we have our work ahead of us if we plan to reopen schools in the fall. There are many factors to consider before moving ahead with reopening schools. We must keep our teachers and students in mind while planning our strategies. Many school districts cannot afford to cover the costs to professional clean and sanitize a school if a student or staff member tests positive for the COVID-19 virus. The face of school reopening has shifted from an emphasis on academics and teacher recruitment to planning how to keep everyone safe from contracting the COVID-19 virus. This is a task that school, district, and state leaders must collaborate on if schools are to open in the fall.

“What’s our why?”

Mike Anderson is an award-winning teacher, a best-selling author, and education consultant. His latest book is What We Say and How We Say It Matter: Teacher Talk that Improves Student Learning and Behavior, and he recently received the 2020 Outstanding Educational Leader Award through New Hampshire ASCD:

There are still so many unknowns that’s it’s almost impossible to say with certainty, “Here’s what we should do and how we should do it” when schools start back up in the fall.

However, there’s an important question we can ask ourselves that will guide our what and our how regardless of the specific details we’ll be coping with in August: What’s our why?

My recommendation is that school leaders tasked with welcoming students and faculty back to school in the fall invest significant time figuring out the most important goals you have for students and faculty. Chances are, they aren’t much different from your goals in a normal year. They’ll probably have to do with some really basic and fundamental ideas.

Safety: How will you make sure that students and faculty are (and feel) physically safe? How will you support emotional safety and security for students and faculty?

Relationships: How will you support the integration of new faculty with their colleagues while strengthening a sense of schoolwide adult comradery? How will you help faculty develop strong connections with their students and help students connect with each other?

Authentic Engagement: How will you help students feel intrinsic motivation for schoolwork—tapping into their needs for autonomy, curiosity, fun, belonging, mastery, and purpose?

These are just a few examples, and as school leaders, you’ll need to surface your own most important priorities. Notice, however, that this list has nothing to do with the logistics we may or may not encounter. Whether we’re back in school as we once were (unlikely in many places), continuing remote learning as we have been (gosh, I hope not), or in some kind of hybrid model (a good bet), our ultimate goals shouldn’t change. But if we start planning for what to do or how to do it without being clear about our why, we’re likely to drift and wander from haphazard idea to haphazard idea.

So, start with your why. Be clear about what’s most important and then figure out how to get there as well as you can given the challenges you face and the resources you have. It may not be perfect (it wasn’t before), but you’ll have purpose to drive your own motivation and guide your actions.

Thanks to Wendi, Mary, Elvis, and Mike for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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